Syria: Old Rules Quietly Revived

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July 23, 2021: Russia, which sent forces to Syria in 2015 to help preserve its old Cold War era ally the Assads, did so for the benefit of Russia, not Syria. Russia was second to come to the aid of the Assads, Iran had already been helping keep their old Shia ally the Assads in power. Iran had more ambitious goals, as in increasing its threat against Israel. A year after the Russians showed up, the Turks sent in troops, but actually depended on Syrian mercenaries.

The Russians hoped to rebuild the Syria military instead of hiring mercenaries. That proved impossible. The pre-2011 Syrian military was gone for good and improving the equipment and air support for the Syrian forces merely made it easier for the Assad troops to play defense, which is all they really wanted to do after several years of civil war. Eventually Russia began hiring some Syrian mercenaries as well, if only to help eliminate the last remnant of ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) in eastern Syria. Russia was content to let the Israelis keep the Iranian forces busy and taking heavy damage.

For centuries Turkey, Iran and Russia were all antagonists, not allies and the seeming “alliance” in Syria was all a mirage. All three of these allies are scheming against their allies. Russia notes that Turkey is selling weapons to Ukraine, where Russian forces are still at war with Ukraine. Turkey is also trying to repair its damaged relationship with NATO, and that means reneging on weapons purchases from Russia and other forms of anti-Russian behavior. Russia is sticking it to Iran by backing Israel and the efforts of Arab states to replace Iran as the protector of the Assad government.

The only real war still going on in Syria is about the remaining Islamic terrorist groups. Most of the remaining Islamic terrorists are trapped in northern Syria (Idlib province) where the terrorists, and many civilian supporters, ended up because of a tactic the Assads used successfully to regain territory where the Islamic terrorists and their supporters were surrounded, with no hope of escape but willing to fight to the death. As much as the Assads wanted these Sunni diehards dead, they did not want to suffer more losses for their own forces as well as the destruction of more property. The Russians agreed with this approach while the Iranians were not, but not enough to fight the Assads or Russians over it. The Russians helped by providing Russian military police battalions composed of Russian Moslems to assure the rebels that the Assads would not renege on the safe-passage-to-Idlib deal. The Syrian Kurds, with American help, crushed ISIL political power in eastern Syria, thereby destroying ISIL ability to control any territory. The Russians and Iranians provided some help with this. Not so much the Turks who considered the Syrian Kurds their enemy.

Which brings us back to Idlib and over 30,000 armed rebels belonging to various Islamic terrorist groups, none of them affiliated with ISIL. There are also nearly a million civilians. These rebels have nowhere to go and will fight to the death rather than surrender. The Turks play defense, adding layers of protection to their border to prevent any of the Idlib residents from getting into Turkey. Iran doesn’t care and is content to let the Turks deal with Idlib while Iranian resources concentrate on Israel. The Assads don’t want any “fight to death” battle in Idlib and the Russians unofficially propose a more traditional tactic for this siege situation; starve them out. While an ancient and often successful tactic, this approach is currently considered a war crime by most, but not all, nations. Without any publicity, Russia, the Turks and Assads are seeking to apply the ancient siege tactic quietly and unofficially. It’s not been easy, with the most troublesome opponent being the foreign aid groups who provide aid for a living but don’t want to go to war with Russia, Turkey and the Assad government.

Increasingly this year UN foreign aid officials have been complaining of Russian threats to block aid headed for Idlib. The civilians are in desperate need of this aid but Russia sees that aid as sustaining the Islamic terror groups who keep attacking Russian bases in adjacent Latakia province. There are many factions in Idlib and by the beginning of 2021 these had overcome enough of their internal disputes so they could maintain more effective resistance to the slowly advancing Syrian troops and growing number of Russian airstrikes. The leaders of this opposition are Syrian al Qaeda members, some with a decade of combat experience. At the beginning of the 2011 civil war al Nusra, an al Qaeda affiliate formed and, under different names, remains the largest Islamic terrorist organization in Syria. Al Nusra evolved into a larger coalition (Tahir al Sham) which has been leading the rebel effort to hold onto some of Idlib province while trying to keep the rebels from fighting each other. During 2020 new leaders and new realities reduced the number of mutually hostile factions. The factional fighting became a major problem in 2017 and during 2020 the factions came to realize that without one “rebel leader”, or at least some form of ceasefire between factions, the Syrians, Russians and Turks could negotiate with or crush the factions separately.

Al Nusra is currently seeking to expel the most violent and undisciplined Islamic terrorist factions from Idlib, if only to gain some more favorable treatment from the UN. That includes enough food and medical aid to stay alive. That aid is slowly disappearing. War crime or not, some old ideas get revived if the situation is desperate enough. Another problem is that surrender is not much of an option. The only one willing to accept the surrender of Idlib holdouts is the Syrian government, which means the Assads, which means an unofficial and well-hidden death sentence for those believed to be a threat to the Assads.

July 22, 2021: In the north (Idlib and Hama province) three of the Islamic terrorist factions in Idlib have been firing unguided rockets at towns in neighboring Hama province. So far, these attacks have left sixteen civilians dead or wounded.

In central Syria (Homs province) another Israeli airstrike destroyed a Hezbollah weapons warehouse, something that could be confirmed from a distance because the air-to-surface missile set off a large secondary explosion because of the explosive items in the warehouses. The noise and fires were visible from a distance and that resulted in cell phone photos that soon appeared on the Internet. This makes BDA (Bombing Damage Assessment) a lot easier because other manmade and natural features in the photo make it possible to confirm the location and date. Then there are the commercial satellite photos, which become available a few days or weeks later.

July 21, 2021: In the north (Aleppo province) Turkey has completed the construction of 50,000 cinder-block homes for Syrian refugees Syria to occupy. These homes, built with money contributed by Turkey and Gulf Arab states, are Afrin, a Turkish controlled town on the Turkish border. This has been the justification for sending Turkish troops to Syria in 2016. The Turks do not want any long-term presence in Syria, they just want to eliminate Islamic terrorists threatening their border and pacify enough of northern Syria to resettle more than two million Syrian Sunni Arab refugees in their new Syrian “security zone” extending into Syria 30 kilometers from the Turkish border. This is not popular with the Assads because Syrian Sunni Arabs are the majority of Syrians and most of the refugees were Sunni Arab rebel supporters. Turkey also offers some of the civilians trapped in neighboring Idlib province. The Turkish security zone was supposed to cover the entire Turkish border from the Mediterranean to Kurdish controlled Hasaka province adjacent to Iraq. That has not worked out as intended. On the Mediterranean Latakia province is an Assad stronghold containing two new Russian military bases. Next is Idlib province, which is still a battle zone. Then there is Aleppo province, where the Turks have made the most progress. East of Aleppo province is Raqqa province, which was long an ISIL stronghold until the Syrian Kurds, backed by American artillery and airstrikes, took the lead in driving out the provincial capital and eliminating ISIL control of any territory. Assad forces were supposed to occupy Raqqa once the fighting had died down in 2017 but remaining groups of ISIL terrorists were more than the battle-weary Assad forces could handle. Meanwhile the Kurdish forces turned their attention to Turkish efforts to create the “security zone” in Raqqa and neighboring Hasaka province. Because the Syrian Kurds still have American support, the Turks have not been as aggressive as they claimed they would be against the Kurdish defenders. In reality, the Turks do not want to get involved in extended combat with the Syrian Kurds, who are the best trained, led and equipped rebels in Syria and have always been formidable fighters. Putting over a million Syrian Sunni refugees in the security zone would provide Turkey with more mercenary recruits to police the security zone and confront any Kurdish moves.

July 20, 2021: Iranian media revealed that Iran is funding and supporting Iran-backed Shia militias in western Afghanistan. Iran wants to protect the Shia minority (about 20 percent of Afghans) from Sunni Islamic terrorists, like the Taliban and ISIL, who have been carrying out more attacks on Afghan Shia.

July 19, 2021: In northern Syria (Aleppo) an Israeli airstrike destroyed several Iranian warehouses containing weapons and ammunition for Iran-backed militias. The bombs set off large secondary explosions because of the explosive items in some of the warehouses. The noise and fires were visible from the city. Tw0 days late Russia claimed that Syria shot down seven of the eight air-to-surface missiles launched from four F-16s. Russia attributed this success to Russia Buk-M2 and Pantsir-S air defense systems the Syrians were using. This claim seems to be more of an effort to boost the poor reputation these two systems have earned in Syria. Moreover, first-person reports from Aleppo indicate that more than one target was hit. Syria has regularly claimed to have intercepted Israeli air-to-ground missiles despite the fact that they could offer no evidence and ignoring the fact that some of those missiles approach the target at the speed of a ballistic missile warhead.

July 18, 2021: In the north (Idlib province) the al Nusra Islamic terrorist coalition that tries to government portions of the province controlled by rebels, is seeking to expel a Chechen Islamic terrorist group for outlaw behavior. The Chechens say they will leave but have dispersed and gone into hiding within Idlib and are terrorizing the other Islamic terrorists. Sort of like ISIL has long done, but without the religious justifications.

July 15, 2021: In the east (Raqqa province) Russian efforts to keep the vital M4 highway open are being undone by fighting between the Turks and Syrian Kurds. Back in January Russia declared that it had negotiated the reopening of the M4 highway for commercial traffic after being closed for a month while Turkish forces cleared some Islamic terrorist rebels who were periodically attacking traffic. The M4 is the main east-west highway from Aleppo to the Assad stronghold Latakia province and its Mediterranean ports. The Turks have also been fighting the Kurdish led SDF coalition and now that fighting has moved close enough to the M4 that the artillery and machine-gun fire exchanged by Turkish and Kurd forces causes civilian traffic to be halted.

July 12, 2021: The Assad government is calling for international assistance to get $50 billion of its money out of Lebanese banks that have frozen such withdrawals since 2019. There is a growing political crisis caused by Iranian meddling in Lebanon, via the local Iran-backed Hezbollah militia. The Assads point out that the money is payment for items exported to Lebanon. That is largely true but those bank transfers are often used to move illegal money around, especially funds banned by anti-terrorist sanctions imposed on Syria and many Lebanese banks.

July 10, 2021: In eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province) a pro-Iran militia fired unguided rockets at an SDF (Syrian Kurdish militia) base that hosted foreign troops, mainly Americans. The rockets caused no damage or casualties but did demonstrate the continued Iranian efforts to inflict some damage on the United States and Israel.

July 9, 2021: In central Syria (Homs province) a senior IRGC officer died when he encountered a landmine planted by Islamic terrorists. IRGC personnel are training advising and controlling pro-Iran militias in the area, where Islamic terrorism is still a threat that even Iran cannot ignore.

July 1, 2021: The United States has added Turkey to the list of countries it believes permit the use of child (under 18) soldiers. This is the first time the U.S. has put a NATO ally on the list. The U.S. is not accusing Turkey of directly employing child soldiers. The U.S. believes a Syrian opposition group Turkey supports, the Sultan Murad Division, uses child soldiers. The Sultan Murad Division is largely manned by ethnic Turkmen who consider some sixteen- or seventeen-year-old boys old enough to fight. In medieval armies the average age was often 17 and since assault rifles became cheaply and widely available in the 1990s, arming younger teenagers has become more common for irregular forces of local defense militias.

June 28, 2021: In the east (Deir Ezzor province) there was an American airstrike against Iranian weapons being stored near the Al Bukamal crossing from Iraq (Anbar province). There were apparently casualties among the Syrian and Iraqi pro-Iran militiamen who guard such Iranian facilities in Syria. At least four Iraqi PMF gunmen died. These airstrikes are regularly carried out by Israel but in this case the U.S. wanted to respond to recent rocket and UAV attacks on American troops in Iraq by Iran-backed Iraqi PMF militias. In a rare move, apparently to placate Iran, Iraq issued a public criticism of the American airstrike.

June 27, 2021: In Syria and Iraq the United States carried out three airstrikes against Iran-backed militias. These airstrikes were in retaliation for recent Iranian attacks on American forces in Iraq.

 

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